Across the Bond: Licence to Kill


And this is the Across the Bond that will cause Xander and I to have a brutal fight to the death if we ever actually are on one another’s continents. We really, really don’t agree on Licence to Kill, like to the point of me almost just copying his words, but using the opposite adjectives. 

Dark and angry Bond is a very divisive figure and this is definitely one of the more controversial entries into the series. Take a read and see whose side you land on. 

Xander Markham

Licence To Kill is my fourth favourite Bond movie, propping up such esteemed company as GoldfingerFrom Russia and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s also the most divisive movie in the series, going much darker than any before or since. For those raised by the flippancy of a Moore or Brosnan, it’s undoubtedly a culture shock and was the first Bond to be given a ’15’ certificate in the UK rather than the customary ‘PG’. By today’s standards it’s ridiculously tame for that rating, even in the uncut version available on the more recent DVD / Blu-Ray releases. That said, this is still a Bond movie which sees the main villain whip his lover, Bond‘s oldest friend dismembered by a shark, a sleazy businessman’s head exploding in a decompression chamber, and a henchman falling ankles-first into a rock crusher. Most of it is implied rather than explicit, but still a long way from Octopussy.

I can understand those who yearn for more family-friendly fare from their Bonds, although as Timothy Dalton points out in the excellent documentary Everything Or Nothing, the character was never created for a young audience. Licence goes a bit further than Ian Fleming ever did in its violence, but not by much. Leiter’s mutilation is a straight lift from the Live And Let Die novel, right down to the sadistic joke left with him as a warning (‘He disagreed with something that ate him’). Fleming was perfectly happy detailing the nastier side of Bond‘s job, proven by how tame the torture scene in Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale is compared to its prolonged equivalent in the novel, where there’s no hint of such mitigating humour as the ‘scratching my balls’ line. In any case, Licence‘s violence is hardly needless: it establishes the stakes of a deeply personal revenge mission for Bond, and gives Sanchez credibility as a Latin American drug lord rather than pandering to the censors by paring him down, which by doing so would also have made inappropriate light of a very serious criminal problem. Is the underworld an appropriate fit for Bond to begin with? Well, Fleming featured the mob several times in his novels, with Bond getting a good beating from them in Diamonds Are Forever, and the Dalton movies are nothing if not timely. It sits perfectly well with me, although again, can understand if more casual fans find it excessive compared to what they’re used to from the series.

The most ridiculous argument is that the movie isn’t ‘Bondian’ enough. Disregarding the Fleming influences already mentioned – and the Milton Krest character is named after a similarly brash American entrepreneur from short story The Hildebrand Rarity, who whips his wife in the manner Sanchez does his mistress Lupe this movie – the movie features some of the series’ most spectacular and ambitiously staged set-pieces, all hitting the heights of badassery which Dalton made his trademark. The pre-credits sequence sees he and Felix capture Sanchez by ‘going fishing’ for his plane before it enters Cuban airspace, then skydiving to the chapel where Leiter is due to be married: a ridiculously cool way to enter a wedding. Later, Bond escapes an underwater death by harpooning a departing seaplane, waterskiing behind until catching it, then ditching the pilot and flying to safety. The climactic battle, meanwhile, takes place atop and inside a number of Kenworth tankers, which Bond systematically destroys in a series of elaborately staged stunts, including pulling a wheelie and avoiding a missile by tilting onto one side of wheels.

The best thing about these sequences is how difficult it is to imagine Bond getting out of them, even though the pieces of his escape have been carefully laid out beforehand. Dalton’s Bond takes more damage, physical and emotional, than his predecessors, but is good at his job because of his quick, rational thinking. Unlike Quantum Of Solace, which turned Bond into an uncharacteristic psychopath for half the movie, Dalton reacts to his friend’s murder with a show of devastating, calculated professionalism. (Dalton’s Bond would own Liam Neeson’s Mr. Taken every day of the week). He’s guided by a desire to see justice done, and doesn’t just target the few men responsible but systematically plays out a plan to take down the whole organisation responsible for dismembering his friend and many more like him. He’s burning with righteous anger, but never lets it impair his judgment: one by one, he brings Sanchez’ lieutenants down, playing on the main villain’s paranoia as his trap closes.

Despite his exceptional talent for the job at hand, this Bond is unmistakeably human. Dalton is the best actor to ever play the part and has some lovely scenes leading up to Leiter’s fate. Tracy gets a beautifully understated nod early on, foreshadowing Leiter’s soon to be curtailed marriage and justifying Bond‘s anger at what happened to him also happening to his best friend. In the scene where he discovers Leiter’s unconscious, dismembered body, Dalton takes a short breath to steel himself against having his worst fears confirmed inside the bodybag lying on the sofa, perhaps the finest moment of acting in the series. Dalton’s Bond is often compared to Craig’s, but Dalton is more fully rounded and always guided by an inherent morality where Craig can too often seem more preoccupied by his own issues than the job at hand. Don’t get me wrong, Craig did stunning work in Casino, but while he brings back many aspects of Fleming’s character, he’s too often out of control – from M and himself – to be as close a match as Dalton. In the You Only Live Twice novel, where Bond is heavily grieving for his dead wife and handed an opportunity to avenge her, he rallies himself to channel his anger into getting the job done. That’s Dalton all over.

He’s helped by a strong supporting cast. Davi’s Sanchez has a fascinating code of honor deepening him beyond the one-dimension drug lord sterotype, always putting loyalty ahead of money. Benicio Del Toro (yes, that one) is terrifying as his enfant terrible sidekick Dario, who is unusually competent for a henchman and uses the actor’s mad-eyed stare to great effect. Pam Bouvier is a standard all-action tough girl, but Carey Lowell plays her with enough sly humour to make her mark, even if her jealous streak is one of the movie’s few bum notes. (The other is Bond‘s constant attempts to send his allies home, which gets tiresome after the second argument). Q gets some welcome time in the field, giving series legend Desmond Llewellyn his biggest role to date and leading to a hilarious sight gag where he discards a gadget with the same insouciance he so often criticised 007 for. Lupe Lamora’s tortured moll shows a rebellious streak in the face of terrible consequences which makes her sympathetic rather than simpering, while crooked televangelist Professor Joe Butcher, played with joyful sliminess by Vegas legend Wayne Newton, is up there with the most Flemingian characters never actually created by the original author. Let’s also not forget the Isthmus City presidente, who is played by Pedro Armendariz Jr., aka the son of the actor who played Kerim Bey in From Russia. Such touches are what make the movie such a delight for long-time fans. 

Licence To Kill was the last movie to pitch Bond to his original adult audience, and despite producing one of the top five movies in an esteemed series, its mistake was perhaps not recognising how the movie character had expanded beyond the reach of his literary equivalent. You’ll never hear anything but praise from me for the bravery of that attempt, though. Its supposed financial ‘failure’ also deserves to be put in context for those using it as a stick to beat the movie with: it grossed $156m on a $32m production budget, which puts it more or less in line with A View To A Kill. Secondly, MGM was undergoing some financial and executive instability at the time, leading to the movie opening into a summer minefield of BatmanBack To The Future Part IIIIndiana Jones And The Last Crusade and Lethal Weapon 2, all far bigger draws at the time than Bond. There were even problems behind the scenes with the advertising, with the then-MGM president discarding a whole planned promotional campaign. There was even a last minute title change from Licence Revoked due to the term being associated by American audiences with the loss of a driver’s licence.

Even with its more restrictive age rating, Licence To Kill had the misfortune of opening at a time when almost all the elements were against it. That it still went on to make such a notable profit deserves to be seen as an achievement in itself. Nevertheless, such circumstances compounded to delay the next Bond movie by a full six years, during which time Timothy Dalton departed for pastures new and the collapse of Communism and the Berlin Wall led speculators to suggest Bond might never return. If Dalton hadn’t been there in the first place to take the character back to basics, perhaps they might have right. Fortunately, producer Cubby Broccoli disagreed, as did a man who had been waiting eight years for his turn with the PPK: Pierce Brosnan.

Matthew Razak

 So now Xander and I really disagree. While I can enjoy The Living Daylights pretty easily my tolerance for Licence to Kill is less so. It’s interesting that many of the points that Xander brings up are pretty much the opposite of my opinion of the film and Dalton’s portrayal. I’ll start with what I like about the movie. It is Bond after all so I of course don’t not like the movie. I am overjoyed that despite the not so overwhelming response to The Living Daylights (its box office wasn’t awful, but crowd reaction wax mixed) the producers stuck to their guns by keeping Bond grounded and real. Having a knee jerk reaction would have completely ruined the franchise, and while I did think they went too dark it’s definitely better than the alternative. The plot is once again based on pretty relevant current events, and keeps Bond a spy instead of a superhero. 

The action is incredibly epic from beginning to end. This is easily one of the most impressive films both in terms of stunts and sequences. For a guy who only made two Bond films Dalton has some of the best, death defying stunts around. He’d already topped much of Moore and Connery with The Living Daylights action sequences and now his Bond hangs from a helicopter and literally fishes a plane out of the sky. Most impressive is the fact that they actually did this. They hung a man out of a helicopter and swung him around until he caught the tail of a plane. It’s absolutely ludicrous and awesome at the same time. It’s just a simply stellar opening for the film (that unfortunately leads into one of the worst credit sequence songs of the series). The crazy stunts don’t end there as Xander details above, and the tanker chase is a brilliant twist on what is basically an old fashioned train heist action sequence (with more explosions of course). A tiny Easter egg from that is that when Bond is being shot at and the bullets hit the tanker the sound of the bullets plays out the Bond theme. Of course that little tidbit doesn’t really fit the tone of the rest of the film and so while fun seems very out of place.

That’s what I’d call the entire film, really. It just feels really out of place in the Bond lexicon. It’s so dark, violent and angry that most of the fun gets sucked out of it and my complaints about Dalton’s Bond being too hard edged just get amplified. I’m in almost complete disagreement with Xander that the film is “Bondian” too. Yes, Fleming’s Bond was very cruel, violent and down right mean at times, and yes many of parts of the film are actually taken from the books, but by this point “Bondian” had a complete different meaning from that found in the books. This is not the James Bond that James Bond was supposed to be and it just feels alienating for any fan of the franchise. Even with Craig’s more violent and dark Bond there’s still a wink and a nod that Licence to Kill is almost entirely missing. To be blunt about it I just don’t think the movie is very Bond.

I’m also not a fan Dalton’s performance in this one, which I find a little too overwrought at times. I know Bond should be horribly upset by the events that occur, but I feel like Dalton pushes it too far and skips right to anger without ever looking back. There’s just a tension about him that makes the entire character seem horribly stiff throughout the film, and it gets even worse when he’s paired up with Pam Bouvier who doesn’t seem to register against Bond‘s tough exterior. Giving Desmond Llewellyn more screen time is always a fun treat, but Dalton doesn’t play off him so well and it just gets kind of awkward. More to the point Dalton is pretty much one revenge driven dimension the entire film. Yes, he’s committed to his goal, and maybe that’s what the Fleming Bond character would do, but it’s detrimental to the film as a piece of entertainment. I’m not saying he should have returned to Moore era flippancy, but his one note anger just makes the film one note as well. I never get that great sense of satisfaction you get from a great revenge film when the bad guy finally kicks it when I’m watching Licence to Kill, and it’s because everything is so one note.

It’s also because Sanchez just isn’t that great a villain. I will definitely applaud the franchise for sticking to its guns on the serious aspect, but Sanchez just bores me. His cruelty seems almost forced, as if they were trying to say look how evil we can be instead of making an evil character. By the end of the movie I really don’t care if he’s alive or dead because he just hasn’t earned my ire. Combine him with the completely weird and relatively stupid televangelist Professor Joe Butcher, hammed up horrendously by Wayne Newton (see what I mean by exact opposite of Xander), and you have a villain that falls flat. The entire sequence at Butcher’s cult-ish church just feels dumb, and once again contrasts horribly with Dalton’sBond. It feels like a bunch of moving pieces that never really gel. I will give credit to Benicio del Toro as one of the most vile henchman we’ve seen, though it mostly has to do wit his creepiness in general than anything the film has him do. His fantastic performance here (and recently in Oliver Stone’s Savages) actually make me dislike the movie a little more because it kind of takes him out of the running to play a main Bond villain and he’d simply be genius at that. Obviously that’s not something they knew way back then, but it’s still annoying.

I’m coming down pretty hard on Licence to Kill it seems, but it’s definitely not my least favorite Bond (Diamonds are Forever) and on occasions I’d prefer to watch it over a lot of other Bonds. The problem is that it just isn’t that Bond for me. I will also point out, as Xander does, that the end of Dalton’s run should not be attributed to Licence to Kill’s “lack of success” as it did do well. Dalton probably would have returned had it not been for the facts Xander mentioned and the legal battles the franchise got caught in during the early 90s. I would have been happy to see him make a few more too as I think when a correct balance was struck he had the right stuff. But on to Brosnan!

Matthew Razak
Matthew Razak is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Flixist. He has worked as a critic for more than a decade, reviewing and talking about movies, TV shows, and videogames. He will talk your ear off about James Bond movies, Doctor Who, Zelda, and Star Trek.